Ted Smyth


CMO 2.0 Conversation with Ted Smyth,
EVP, Corporate Affairs at The McGraw-Hill Companies

March 18, 2011

Written by Francois Gossieaux

If you want to meet a truly insightful CMO 2.0, meet Ted Smyth, the Executive Vice President, Corporate Affairs at the McGraw-Hill Companies. Ted has a really interesting background that started with a 15 year long career as a senior Irish diplomat. He then switched over to the world of business by joining Heinz, where he spent 20 years before joining McGraw-Hill 2 years ago. One of the main lessons learned from this diverse background is that companies have to embrace performance with purpose – you don’t want to achieve profit goals at the exclusion of what’s good for society. Young people especially, will not want to leave their persona’s at the company’s front door, they will want to continue to do good for society while being at work. Another obvious benefit of mixing do-good with company performance is that as a company you will increase the passion of your employees in the context of their work – which is clearly a win-win proposition.

We quickly delved into the topic of innovation, a hot topic at McGraw-Hill, where many of the industries in which they operate are undergoing tectonic shifts, and many of their businesses are going through the classic innovator’s dilemma. Innovation and customer focus are two major initiatives at McGraw-Hill. They strive to delight customers and prospects, and seek out people who are brilliant, courageous, curious, competitive and driven to do so – both inside and outside the organization. Innovation at McGraw-Hill is both a grass roots as well as a top down initiative, and celebrating wins, benchmarking themselves against other innovators, and developing an understanding of societal needs is all part of their culture of innovation. Ted is a firm believer that innovation needs to be structured and attached to people’s work routine. It needs to be disciplined to succeed and you always have to be on the lookout to not just innovate according to your capabilities, realizing that sometimes you need to upgrade your capabilities to develop what customers want.

Next we talked about education and learning, an important part of McGraw-Hill’s business, and a perfect example of what Ted meant when he talked about achieving business success while also doing good for society. Learning and education are clearly becoming digital activities that can help fix the current system, which is failing our kids – with kids who are slower than average falling behind and those who are faster than average getting bored. Digital courseware helps alleviate these problems. In digital environments, teachers and educators are freed up to become coaches with the ability to provide one-on-one help for the kids. While digital learning can remove some of the social barriers that sometimes inhibit learning (e.g., humiliation for not getting it), digital learning needs to be a very social/collaborative activity in order to succeed.

We then talked about the changes in how people consume content and where they get their buying recommendations from, and how that impacts marketing. The way McGraw-Hill thinks about marketing and advertising has obviously changed, with much more activity shifting towards thought leadership and relevance in social media. Just like other Hyper-Social Organizations, McGraw-Hill realizes that you can only ensure consistency across all the different touch points that you have with your customers by living your mission and values. They have a very clear mission - need for knowledge, need for capital, need for transparency -, and a set of values that are easy to live by – objectivity, integrity, candor, diversity (especially of thought), and independence. These simple concepts unite all employees across all divisions and help drive consistent decision-making across different markets with different customers.

Ted finished the conversation with two words of wisdom for marketers – we need to introduce more humor and emotions in communications and better articulate great societal causes. In closing he quoted some lines from an Irish poem by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney from the Canon of Expectation that got recited at a St. Patrick’s Day event he attended the day before our interview: “I yearn for hammerblows on clinkered planks, the uncompromised report of driven thole-pins, to know there is one among us who never swerved from all his instincts told him was right action,who stood his ground in the indicative, whose boat will lift when the cloudburst happens.” That is where we as individuals, communities and companies need to be, we need to stand our ground in the indicative, and our boat will lift when the cloudburst happen. We need firmness of purpose and be able to express it emotionally, poetically and humorously – that is where communications needs to be in order to be effective in this cluttered world.

What a great way to close a conversation with a truly great human being. Thank you Ted!

Other topics we touched on:

• The importance of the fundamentals of conflict resolution in business
• The role of training in fostering innovation
• The balance between understanding unmet needs and prospects vs existing customers needs
• The importance of serendipity in innovation
• The lessons that can be learned from game designers in education
• The need to bring down silos in stimulating innovation and learning, both in education and businesses, and the    importance of social networking in doing so  
• Generational differences in learning
• The importance of content curation in the publishing industry
• The dynamics of the current knowledge economy