Dave Sutton, Managing Partner, Blue Rhino Capital, Founder TopRight, Member Board of Directors, Overdrive Interactive & Author

Dave Sutton is a globally recognized marketing strategist and investor, with over 30 years of experience transforming businesses through innovative marketing practices. He is the founder of Blue Rhino Capital and TopRight, a transformational marketing consultancy. An accomplished author, Sutton has contributed to significant works in marketing, including “Marketing Interrupted,” “Strategic Analytics,” and “Enterprise Marketing Management: The New Science of Marketing.” His expertise covers a broad spectrum of marketing disciplines, including branding, digital marketing, and leveraging artificial intelligence in marketing. A sought-after speaker, Sutton is known for his insights on marketing ROI, brand strategy, and the impact of technology on marketing. His leadership roles in organizations like YPO and his academic background in computer engineering and marketing enrich his unique perspective on marketing’s role in business growth and innovation.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with CXO Outlook Magazine, Dave shared his professional trajectory, his roles and responsibilities as Managing Director at Blue Rhino Capital, the key learnings that helped him navigate the complex and ever-changing landscape of marketing, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Dave, can you tell us about your journey into marketing and your mission to make a positive impact on the world?

My marketing journey has been centered around the concept of Transformational Marketing. I founded TopRight LLC, a marketing consulting firm, to help companies move to the top right quadrant of their competitive frame and corner the markets where they choose to compete. This approach is based on the 3S Playbook model of the right Story, the right Strategy, and the right Systems, which turns sales transactions into customer experiences that connect and communicate the essence and impact of what companies do for their customers.  After I sold TopRight in 2022, I focused my attention on investing in companies that are trying to transform their industry (or the world) using transformational technologies like AI and Machine Learning.  This is my current focus at Blue Rhino Capital.

In addition to being a strategic marketing consultant, I have focused on creating a positive impact on the world through various initiatives. I co-founded Global Health Marketplace, a business-to-business market for Global Health Products and Services, which aims to match those who have with those in need. This marketplace is a platform for philanthropic-minded companies to buy and sell goods and services efficiently, supporting the improvement of public health outcomes worldwide. My mission extends to economic development strategies, where I co-founded a firm to help clients improve economic and social outcomes through municipal finance alternatives and placemaking strategies.  I also serve on the Global Board of Young President’s Organization – which focuses on building better leaders through lifelong learning and idea exchange.

Tell us about your roles and responsibilities as Managing Director at Blue Rhino Capital.

As the Managing Partner at Blue Rhino Capital since June 2005, my primary role involves guiding this specialized private equity group to help smaller strategic investors engage in high-growth and high-return investments. We focus on identifying and capitalizing on unique opportunities that are often overlooked by larger firms. This includes sectors like fast-growth startups requiring strategic sales and marketing capabilities, underfunded technology companies in need of capital and strategic guidance, as well as innovative life sciences companies in fast-growth markets. Our strategic approach is to leverage our deep experience and real-world management expertise in these specific sectors.

You are currently a Member of the Board of Directors at Overdrive Interactive. Tell us about this organization and your role in it.

Overdrive Interactive is a digital marketing agency that specializes in creating multi-channel internet marketing strategies and online lead generation plans for large national companies. They have expertise in various digital marketing services including website redesign, integrated digital marketing, digital demand generation, lead generation campaigns, social media campaigns, and brand awareness campaigns. The agency is known for its innovative approach and has won awards for campaigns in various categories such as online campaigns, rich media, and interactive user experience campaigns. The leadership team at Overdrive Interactive includes experts with extensive experience in their respective fields, contributing to the agency’s success in delivering effective marketing solutions. As a member of the Board, I evaluate strategic plans, provide feedback on performance, and guide the CEO and leadership team in the attainment of their goals.

According to you, what are the most important skills you need to break into marketing? Which marketing certification courses, skill development paths, books, or channels do you recommend for upskilling to aspiring professionals?

To break into marketing and excel in this field, a combination of diverse skills is essential. These include a deep understanding of integrated marketing, strategic planning, marketing strategy, competitive analysis, customer relationship management (CRM), analytics, marketing management, business development, and management consulting. These skills enable one to navigate the complex landscape of modern marketing, which encompasses various strategies, tools, and platforms. For upskilling and professional development in marketing, several avenues can be explored including certification courses. Programs such as HubSpot’s Inbound Certification offer foundational knowledge in inbound marketing techniques, digital marketing, and effective customer engagement strategies.  Reading widely from credible sources such as Harvard Business Review, along with books like “Enterprise Marketing Management: The New Science of Marketing” and “Marketing Interrupted,” can offer valuable insights into the evolving nature of marketing and strategic thinking. Gaining hands-on experience through internships, project work, or contributing to real-world marketing campaigns can be invaluable. This experience allows for the application of theoretical knowledge in practical scenarios, fostering a deeper understanding of marketing strategies and their impact. Joining professional marketing associations (i.e. AMA, BMA, ANA) or groups, attending industry seminars and workshops, and networking with seasoned professionals can provide exposure to current trends, best practices, and innovative strategies in marketing. Leveraging online learning platforms and channels – websites offering specialized courses in digital marketing, social media strategy, content marketing, SEO, and data analytics can be beneficial. These platforms often provide flexible and up-to-date learning opportunities tailored to the needs of aspiring marketing professionals.

It’s important to combine formal education with practical experience and continuous learning to stay abreast of the rapidly evolving marketing landscape. Engaging with diverse sources of knowledge and skill-building opportunities can pave the way for a successful career in marketing.

What have been some of the lessons that you had to learn the hard way along your career path?

Throughout my career, I have learned several key lessons about the importance of being cautious and intentional when it comes to chasing new trends, often referred to as “bright shiny objects.” Here is a quick review of six key lessons I’ve learned….

Question the need for “Bright Shiny Objects”.  It’s essential not to follow new trends blindly just because they are popular. Instead, take a deep look at why a trend is appealing and whether it is necessary for your success. Articulating your brand’s destination, which specifies how you want customers to perceive and interact with your brand, is crucial. This approach helps in evaluating new trends and making the right marketing decisions to achieve success.

Clearly define metrics for success. Before pursuing any new trend, it’s important to know how its success will be measured. I suggest using CLEAR (Collaborative, Limited, Emotional, Appreciable, and Refinable) goals to track marketing performance and navigate the brand toward its destination. This approach ensures that any new initiative aligns with your brand’s goals and isn’t just a distraction.

Challenge the “Hype Cycle” The hype cycle demonstrates that people often get overly excited about new trends, only to be disappointed when they don’t immediately change the world. However, some trends do have the potential to be game changers given the right market conditions and patience. It’s important to evaluate if a new trend can help achieve your brand’s goals more efficiently.

Periodically recalibrate Your marketing priorities. Marketing resources aren’t unlimited. If you decide to pursue a new trend, it may require reallocating resources and priorities. It’s crucial to reassess your marketing goals and ensure there are no conflicts with existing marketing programs.

Test-Learn-Act-Learn-Test.  Behave more like a scientist – committing resources to thoroughly evaluate a new trend is necessary before you launch. Establish a team to test the most promising ideas for building your brand and growing your business. If the trend shows potential, then consider incorporating it into your overall marketing strategy.

Learn from Failure. Not all trends will lead to success, and failure is a part of the process. It’s important to build a culture that values quick learning and resilience. Encourage intellectual curiosity and recognize it in your team members. This approach helps in continuously improving your marketing strategies.

These lessons have helped me navigate the complex and ever-changing landscape of marketing, ensuring that my focus remains on strategies that align with long-term goals and brand vision.

What good aspects of basic marketing have marketers neglected in recent years?

When I was doing research for my book, “Enterprise Marketing Management”, I identified three aspects of basic marketing that even the most successful marketers would routinely neglect or occasionally just forget.  First of all, run brands as businesses, not as campaigns. Marketers must shift from treating marketing as an art to a science. It is critically important to use customer knowledge to define a brand’s value proposition and then translate this into specific actions for an effective customer experience. Secondly, focus on managing your brand, not your customer.  Marketers should focus on taking ownership of the brand experience and evaluating investments based on their ability to help companies sell more products or services. Through collaboration with other departments like sales, finance, operations, and service, marketing can enable a better and more profitable brand experience for customers. And finally, Marketers must think about reinventing the business, not just communications. Marketers need to adapt to new economic drivers, such as globalization and technological innovations. Brand leaders must shift from a “make-centered” to a “sell-centered” business model, focusing on delivering on the brand promise from the customer’s perspective.

Throughout this book, I advocate for a disciplined, scientific approach to marketing, emphasizing the need for a strategic marketing framework, brand architecture, and the integration of marketing into the overall enterprise. The approach, termed Enterprise Marketing Management (EMM), is designed to create sustained profitable organic growth by leveraging information technology to close the gap between marketing and other enterprise functions. The book also stresses the importance of measuring return on marketing investment (ROMI) and adopting activity-based marketing analysis for effective decision-making.

“Enterprise Marketing Management” serves as a comprehensive playbook, extending the lessons of marketing as a science and applying them to modern business practices. It is recommended for professional marketers seeking a structured methodology to enhance their marketing strategies and execution in a dynamic business environment.

How marketing leaders can be better mentors and true leaders of their teams?

In my experience, marketing leaders can become better mentors and true leaders of their teams by adopting several key practices.  It all starts with embracing a strategic vision. Leaders should have a clear vision and understanding of the market and their brand’s place within it. This involves defining a strategic direction, as highlighted in my book “Enterprise Marketing Management”, which focuses on running brands as businesses and managing them, not just the customer.  True leaders also foster a culture of learning and innovation.  Encourage continuous learning and innovation within the team. As discussed in my book “Marketing Interrupted”, it’s crucial to sometimes go a little crazy and think outside the box to succeed in marketing.

Of course, marketers must develop clear and achievable goals for the team. Set CLEAR (Collaborative, Limited, Emotional, Appreciable, and Refinable) goals. This approach helps in tracking marketing performance and guiding the brand toward its destination. Great marketers then empower through responsibility and autonomy – giving team members ownership of projects and the autonomy to make decisions. This not only builds confidence but also encourages a sense of responsibility and belonging.  And it is critical to provide continuous feedback and support. Regular feedback is essential for growth and development. Constructive feedback helps team members understand their strengths and areas for improvement.  By encouraging collaboration and teamwork, marketing leaders promote a collaborative environment where ideas are freely shared and valued. This includes cross-functional collaboration to broaden perspectives and enhance creativity.

The best marketing leaders lead by example.  They demonstrate the best qualities that they wish to instill in the team. They are ethical, committed, and passionate about their work. They know that their behavior sets the tone for the entire team.  Likewise, they invest in professional development – for themselves and their team.  They encourage and provide opportunities for professional growth through training sessions, workshops, or attending conferences. Most importantly, they recognize and reward achievements. A true leader acknowledges the hard work and accomplishments of team members. Recognition can be a powerful motivator and morale booster.

Of course, you can never underestimate the importance of continuous learning. Stay updated on industry and technology trends in marketing and follow influencers and thought leaders you admire. For example, check out my article: “5 Reasons Why Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Marketing As We Know It”. Keeping up with the latest trends ensures that your team remains competitive and innovative.

By implementing these strategies, marketing leaders can effectively mentor their teams, fostering an environment of growth, innovation, and success.

What skills will marketers need in the future? How do you stay sharp?

In the future, marketers will need a blend of traditional marketing skills and a strong grasp of emerging technologies and trends. Staying sharp in this rapidly evolving field requires continuous learning and adaptation. Based on my expertise and insights from thought leaders in the field, here are nine specific skills that future marketers will need and how they can stay sharp:

Data Analysis and Interpretation: As marketing increasingly relies on data to drive decisions, the ability to analyze and interpret data will be crucial. Understanding customer behaviors, preferences, and trends through data analytics is essential for effective targeting and personalization.

Digital Proficiency: Familiarity with digital tools and platforms, including social media, SEO, content management systems, and digital advertising, is necessary. Marketers should stay updated with the latest digital marketing trends and tools.

Content Creation and Storytelling: The ability to create compelling content and tell engaging stories that resonate with the target audience is fundamental. This involves not just writing skills but also an understanding of visual content, video production, and storytelling techniques.

Understanding of AI and Machine Learning: As outlined in my article “5 Reasons Why Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Marketing As We Know It”, AI and machine learning are becoming integral to marketing. Marketers need to understand how these technologies can be leveraged for predictive analytics, customer segmentation, and personalized marketing.

Adaptability and Flexibility: The marketing landscape is constantly changing. Marketers must be adaptable and flexible to keep up with new trends, platforms, and consumer behaviors.

Strategic Thinking and Planning: The ability to think strategically and develop long-term plans aligned with business objectives is crucial. This involves understanding the market, competition, and how different marketing channels contribute to achieving business goals.

Customer Empathy and Experience Design: Understanding customer needs and experiences is key to creating effective marketing strategies. This involves empathy and the ability to design customer journeys that enhance engagement and satisfaction.

Collaboration and Communication Skills: Effective communication and collaboration with different teams and stakeholders are vital. This includes both internal communication within the organization and external communication with customers and partners.

Ethical Marketing and Social Responsibility: As consumers become more conscious of corporate ethics and social responsibility, marketers need to ensure that their practices align with these values.

To stay sharp, marketers can engage in continuous learning and keep up with industry trends through online courses, webinars, workshops, and conferences.  Build a network of peers by joining professional organizations, attending industry events, and participating in online forums to exchange ideas and experiences.  I strongly encourage experimentation and innovation – play with new tools, platforms, and marketing strategies to gain practical experience and insights. Don’t be afraid to practice more “FAFO” (Fooling Around and Finding Out) with new tools and strategies.  Finally, seek feedback, coaching, and mentorship from experienced marketers in the field.

By developing these skills and maintaining a commitment to continuous learning and adaptation, marketers can stay sharp and effective in the dynamic landscape of future marketing.

What drives you? How do you measure personal success?

I am driven by a desire to help business leaders transform their marketing to routinely beat their competition and become category leaders.  I believe that traditional marketers and advertisers have become lazy – they continually try new and different ways to interrupt us as customers! And that’s just not working anymore. It’s inauthentic, ineffective, annoying, and a waste of money. The fact is that interruptive marketing—the continual pushing of brand messaging through traditional marketing methods, such as broadcast advertising, direct mail, display advertising, flashy booths at trade shows, and even salespeople at times—is often just noise and nuisance. Your audience will go out of their way to avoid you. So, I am driven to help business leaders turn it around, interrupt the marketing department and challenge them to change their ways.

Transformational Marketing literally transforms how your customer experiences you, understands you, and interacts with you. It is a change in mindset as well as methodology. No longer is the story simply about you and what you offer. Your brand, your products, your services are not really the hero. The power and impact of your brand, your product, your services, and your story comes from making the customer the hero, and you, the marketer, serving as the guide on their buying journey. Throughout the entire customer lifecycle, the intention—the requirement is to deliver on the brand promise. Only then will prospects become customers, and customers become brand advocates.

I measure my success by the success of the companies and the business leaders that I serve.  If they’re not successful, then I’m not successful.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to continue working with and investing in innovative companies and business leaders who have a transformational mindset.  By that, I mean leaders who recognize that the power and impact of their brand, their products, their services, and their story comes from making the customer the hero!  The role of the brand, and the marketers that activate it, is to serve as the guide on the customer’s journey.  I hope to increase and diversify my portfolio across a wide range of industries – with a unifying focus on transformational technologies, management teams who punch above their weight class, and visionary leaders who have an outsized impact in the markets where they compete.

What advice will you give to mid-level managers to move on to leadership roles?

Based on my personal experience and journey, I would offer the following advice to mid-level managers aspiring to move into leadership roles.  Develop a broad perspective. Leadership roles require a holistic understanding of the business. Expand your knowledge beyond your immediate functional area. Understand how different parts of the organization work together and contribute to the overall success.  Always be cultivating your people skills. Leadership is largely about people management. Develop skills in communication, empathy, and motivation. Learn how to inspire and lead teams effectively. Be proactive in taking responsibility. Seek out new challenges, especially those that push you out of your comfort zone. Show initiative in tackling complex problems or leading challenging projects.

Build a strong network of peers and mentors. Relationships matter in business. Build a network both within and outside your organization. Engage with peers, mentors, and other industry professionals.  Learn from other leaders and mentors. You should seek mentorship from individuals in leadership roles. Understand their journey, the challenges they faced, and how they overcame them. Learning from others’ experiences can provide invaluable insights. Enhance Your critical thinking skills and develop the ability to think strategically. This means understanding market trends, anticipating changes, thinking long-term, and aligning daily operations with strategic goals. Demonstrate consistent performance. Consistency in delivering results is key. Prove your ability to meet and exceed targets consistently. This builds credibility and shows your reliability as a potential leader.

Moving up in leadership requires you to be open to new ideas and approaches. The ability to adapt to change and drive innovation is a critical trait in a leader. increase your Emotional Intelligence (“EQ”).  Leaders with high emotional intelligence can manage their own emotions and understand and influence the emotions of others.  Don’t ignore the financials.  You need to understand the financials even if you’re not in a finance role. Learn to speak the “language of finance” and help translate the impact of marketing strategies and tactics into financial business results and metrics. understanding the financial implications of your decisions is crucial in a leadership role.  And importantly, embrace lifelong learning: Never stop learning. Keep up with the latest trends in your industry, acquire new skills, and constantly seek knowledge.

Remember, transitioning to a leadership role is a journey that involves continuous learning and growth. Demonstrate your value, be ready to take on challenges, and consistently work on improving your skill set.

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