Overcoming a Cats & Dogs Mentality: Achieving Success through Marketing & Sales Alignment

Lamar Johnson

VP of Sponsorship Marketing at National Public Radio

Learning Objectives

For many years across many industries and companies, working relationships between Sales & Marketing teams have often been fraught with friction and conflict. Divergent considerations around budget control, strategic approach, and individual rewards/recognition can sometimes get in the way of achieving organizational profit goals. When you add in the new realities of working in a pandemic, achieving alignment and collaboration can be even more challenging. Join Lamar Johnson, Vice President of Marketing at National Public Media (the for-profit sales & marketing arm of National Public Radio), as he shares his insights and philosophy for driving collaboration around NPR’s central mission and purpose -- to create a more informed American public.

Key Takeaways:

  • Keep Sales & Marketing teams’ “eyes on the prize” around a shared mission/purpose

  • Lead with empathy and always walk in others’ shoes

  • Create an environment that fosters collaboration and celebrates experimentation, occasional failures and all wins (both big and small)

"The second tenet for me is the notion of leading with empathy and walking in other people's shoes. "

Lamar Johnson

VP of Sponsorship Marketing at National Public Radio


Hi, I’m Lamar Johnson, VP of Sponsorship Marketing for NPRs for profit sponsorship subsidiary, National Public Media. I’m excited to be with you all today to talk about achieving success through marketing and sales alignment. I lead a team of eight marketing professionals working in close collaboration with two senior VPS of sales at 37 highly talented frontline sales professionals. Our team’s combined efforts generate the majority of funding that fuels the engines of award winning work, and programming that NPR is renowned for. Shows like “All Things Considered”, and podcasts like “Cold Switch” and “Louder than a Riot”.

I’m going to keep my presentation pretty short today. Before I dive in too deep, I just want to talk a little bit about the history of interactions between sales and marketing teams. As many of you are probably well aware from your experience, sales and marketing teams have often merely coexisted, and been fraught with misalignment, conflict, or never-ending tension, as opposed to operating like a well oiled profit driving machine. Oftentimes, sales and marketing teams and their leaders operate in varying states of confusion, and competition for control, and jockeying for position. Oftentimes, those disconnects and battles can center around strategy, creative expression, budget and resource control, who is going to take credit for success, or who’s going to take blame for failures, and the list goes on and on—lists that are probably too long for us to include in this short presentation.

When you add into all of that mix, the challenges of a once in a century pandemic, the difficulties can become all the more pronounced. Many folks in business settings resigned themselves to accepting that these interactions have to be difficult, because it’s always been that way. However, you might describe it within your organization, whether it’s the Keystone cops stumbling over each other shoe laces or getting in each other’s way or the epic battles of cats and dogs fighting it out and constantly at each other’s throats or even the long standing feuds like the Hatfields and the McCoys. However, conflict or misalignment may show up within your sales and marketing functions. All that matters is really trying to figure out a better way.

What I’d like to share with you today is another perspective and an ultimate approach to leading those interdepartmental relationships. One that has the ultimate goal of being on one accord with minimal friction, and more collaboration across sales and marketing teams. Let’s jump right in.

The first of three tenets that I like to focus on is the notion of keeping all eyes on the ultimate prize. That really has to do with staying focused on a shared organizational mission or a big organizational purpose, as opposed to an individual motivation or an individual mission or purpose. In NPEs case, that big organizational purpose is a pretty noble one that we can all sink our teeth into, and that is creating a more informed American public. The idea of focusing on that as our team mission, our team mantra, our rallying cry is much more effective than focusing on short term or transactional individual motivations, like achieving a personal sales commission, or closing an individual deal, or getting credit for being an individual hero.

Focusing on a big organizational mission is really important to keep a focus and keep folks motivated and aligned. In terms of bringing that to life, I like to translate that big organizational mission into a relatable human story, and I’ll get to that in a second. Something that people can align with or something that will stir an emotion or stir a reaction. Relating that organizational mission into a personal or relatable story, I think, has a lot of power in terms of keeping that alignment and that focus.

I’ll tell you my personal story, it has to do with my exposure to public broadcasting as a young person. So long before I ever thought of working at NPR or having a job in public broadcasting, I was one of the first generations of kids in America that was exposed to public broadcasting. For me, that took the form of Sesame Street and Zoom and Electric Company. Those PBS television shows really got myself and my brothers off to a good foundation of solid academics and social skills in terms of learning how to interact with people of all types.

As we got older, that exposure to public broadcasting took the form of exposure to NPR and shows like “All Things Considered”. As we came of age, that exposure to public broadcasting really helped us become more informed young men, and more articulate young men who are able to communicate with anybody. Although we grew up in—what I’d like to say is a challenging urban environment in the Bronx, New York in the 1970s, and 80s—I really, truly give credit, to our exposure to public broadcasting, PBS and NPR, in terms of getting us off on the right foot and setting a strong foundation for us to be successful and to be part of that more informed American public.

My personal story, whereas many of my friends didn’t have that exposure, and maybe didn’t have a life that turned out in a positive way. My exposure—my personal exposure—during otherwise challenging times and a challenging upbringing, really helped put my life on a different trajectory from an academic and educational and personal development perspective.

What I like to share with our sales and other teams within our organization, particularly at times when perhaps they may be burnt out or frustrated in the day to day work of closing deals or chasing down insertion orders, or chasing down elusive clients, is that they should keep their eyes focused on the ultimate prize of keeping and growing and driving a more informed American public. I also like to say that somewhere in urban America or rural America, for that matter, there is a little Lamar or a little Donald or someone, some young person who will ultimately benefit from the hard work that goes into driving revenue and closing sponsorship deals for an organization like NPR. Keeping that focus on this notion of an ultimate prize, I think, is really powerful in terms of achieving that alignment across those teams.

The second tenet for me is the notion of leading with empathy and walking in other people’s shoes. This is a pretty simple one. You may be familiar with it from your own experience, but really understanding your colleagues day to day motivations, challenges, frustrations, and really practicing anticipation of what’s needed. Doing what I like to refer to as “practicing crystal balling”. Having in your back pocket, in my instance as a marketing professional, tools and resources that can meet a need before the need is even expressed, so collateral or sales or promotional materials. Having things already in line and in place that can answer the needs or requests of a prospective client. Thought leadership pieces of events that can provide presence for a brand like NPR or for another type of organizational brand, if you will, but anticipating the needs of your sales colleagues, and having things in place that can meet those needs before the need is even expressed, I think it’s really important. I like to paraphrase the lyrics of a hip hop song in saying “If you stay ready, you rarely have to get ready.” This notion of crystal balling, playing chess, and being two steps ahead of your sales colleagues in terms of anticipating needs.

The third and last tenet of my approach to achieving sales, success, and marketing alignment has to do with fostering an environment of collaboration and experimentation. First and foremost, that really, for me, particularly in this COVID environment that we found ourselves in, for the last 14 plus months, really is all about eating, drinking, being married, telling stories, bonding, and doing the things that perhaps would have otherwise happened in a more traditional in office environment. Right now everybody is burnt out on zoom calls and conference calls, and just even the idea of brainstorming some creative ideas can be challenging, because you don’t have the benefit of going into a conference room and ordering a pizza, and getting down to business.

I like to propose that we utilize tools of this time to really drive that notion of eating, drinking, being married, telling stories, and bonding. In lieu of going out to a bar and having drinks, maybe you tap into Drizzly and have beer or some cocktails delivered to your colleagues for brainstorm, or Uber Eats providing folks with a gift card or promotional code to order a meal and break bread over an Uber Eats delivered meal at home, or even things like a [inaudible] or other things.

I’ve included a link here, under this first bullet to an article that outlines 37 thought starters for how you can engage your team, particularly in a remote setting, in creative and interesting and non-traditional ways. I’ll let you go through it yourself, but I’ll just click on the link and share a few of them with you that are favorites of mine.

Pancakes vs Waffles is a game that just is all about starting and maintaining a conversation about either or is it pancakes or waffles. Another one that I like to suggest for teams is this one: a Tiny Campfire. It’s really a cool idea and it’s built around this notion that storytelling often takes place around smores. Everybody likes smores, right? What about the idea, particularly again, in a remote setting, of having some smores within the team and folks just telling stories about themselves, about business, about an interesting client interaction—just getting those storytelling juices flowing around a miniature campfire and some smores.

I hope that this little article with these 37 thought starter ideas can be helpful for your team in terms of getting a conversation started, bonding within or across teams, and really setting that environment often in place for collaboration and experimentation.

The second bullet in this third tenet is the notion of keeping an open mind, and an open ear, and an open heart to ideas coming from anyone or anywhere within the organization. I’m a firm believer that biggest ideas can come from an intern or someone in the facilities department or the mailroom all the way up to the C suite executives. The notion of creating ideas is not the proprietary domain of just the marketing department.

I’ll give you a specific example of that. One of my sales colleagues just recently had the idea of suggesting that we deploy a chat function on our website. Chat functions are typically reserved for more retail online outlets like Amazon and others, and rarely are deployed for a media sponsorship sales organization. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and we’re actually in the process of exploring what this notion of adding a chat function to our website would mean. We’re looking at whether or not it would be manned by a sales employee, what the hours of that chat function might be, and some of the housekeeping details that can go along with deploying an idea like that. My point in bringing this up is just to say that that idea came from one of our frontline sales employees. This notion of keeping an open mind, and open ear, and an open heart to ideas coming from anywhere or anyone is really important in terms of setting that foundation of collaboration and experimentation.

Last but certainly not least, celebrating risk taking and successes and failures. This notion that failure can provide fertile ground as a learning experience, I think it’s really important in terms of just setting a tone that it’s okay to take a calculated risk even if that made you fall flat on your face. I think it’s important to allow people, the leeway and the runway to succeed, of course, but also to fail. That’s it—three quick tenets that really, I think, can help go a long way in terms of achieving success and alignment across marketing and sales teams and functions.

I hope you took away some valuable points today that you can use and deploy within your own organization to achieve that success across marketing and sales functions. Thank you very much for your time. I hope you’ll have a chance to connect perhaps on LinkedIn or feel free to reach out through the Quartz Network. Thank you again.

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